With the holidays upon us many of you may find the New Year brings with it the dread of gaining weight. Yet it can be confusing just what to eat to avoid the seemingly inevitable holiday bulge. The headlines are full of tips on “this diet” or “that diet”. The medical literature banters back and forth about the benefits and risks of “low carb” versus “low fat” versus “high protein” as we hyper-analyze measurements such as good cholesterol, bad cholesterol, insulin, glucose, weight and blood pressure.
It seems the more we study the more confusing it gets. If we are so smart then why is it we can’t seem to get a handle on the weight issue? How can we turn around our weight concerns and avoid the typical holiday weight gain? Certainly our diet plays a key role in weight control and overall health, and some simple guidelines deserve a closer look.
I’ve read dozens of books on diets – South Beach, Atkins, Zone, Paleo, Mediterranean, Keto, and more…. There are some similarities, and some common-sense threads they all share. Here is my take on the lot of them with a few pearls I’ve learned along the way.
Food choices to avoid weight gain
First, consider both how much we eat. There is no question that taking in way more calories than necessary leads to weight gain. There is no question that weight loss will not happen unless we limit our intake to a reasonable amount. Super-size meals equal super-size waistlines. The next time you sit down to a meal consider that it takes twenty minutes for the brain to “catch-up” to the stomach. Eat half a sandwich or half the entrée, wait a bit, and see if you are still hungry.
Now let’s look at what we eat. Start with carbohydrates. Our ancestors got their carbohydrates from raw, organic fruits and vegetables. We are designed to get six, eight or even ten servings per day. Are you there yet? 90% of Americans don’t get five per day, and this is where we are supposed to get many vitamins and nutrients that are vital for proper metabolism and hormone function.
Sugar and starch are also carbohydrates. In the year 1900 the average American ate about 3 pounds of refined sugar per year. Flash forward to a 1994 study that showed we were up to between 50 and 150 pounds per year! I don’t think we need fancy research studies to figure this one out. We are not designed for so much sugar so go easy on the holiday sweets!
Starch is a very simple carbohydrate that is digested and broken down so quickly that it may as well be sugar. Breads, potatoes, pasta and rice are classic examples. I’m not saying don’t eat these, just don’t eat so much, and when you do, try for whole-grain products that take longer to break down and have more nutrients.
Why should fruits and veggies be fresh? Canning kills enzymes and about 50% of the nutrients are lost. Why organic? Aside from avoiding all the crazy chemicals (a whole other matter) our foods get nutrients from soil, and soils that rely on synthetic fertilizers are mineral depleted. Organic farming practices encourage nutrient rich soil, which means nutrient rich food. Plus, to me, organic produce usually tastes better.
Proteins and fats typically come together in food. We are designed for lean protein that is high in omega-3 fats, such as wild game and fish. This does not jive with the American sources including grain-fattened red meat, dairy and processed foods such as chips and pastries. Again, I’m not suggesting one has to entirely avoid red meat or dairy, but to recognize there are other protein rich foods and we are getting proportionately way too much saturated fat from our typical protein sources. Lean toward grass-fed beef, venison, free-range chickens and eggs, wild salmon and tuna, European or Greek style yogurts, fermented soy products such as Tempeh, and protein rich grains such as quinoa.
Fats are perhaps the most misunderstood dietary element. Since the American Heart Association (AHA) began its ideological low-fat campaign back in the 1980s we have seen obesity rates skyrocket. Hmmm… it seems trading fat for sugar and starch isn’t working out so well. The AHA missed the point in that we need “good” fats, for fuel but also for the essential fatty acids, omega-3 and omega-6, which have important roles in metabolism and inflammation. Along with the above-mentioned protein sources, look for the right oils from fruit (olive), nuts (almonds, pecans, walnuts, coconut oil), or seeds (flax, chia, pumpkin).
The best beverage is plain, pure water and plenty of it. Keep a mug of water handy all day to get enough! Green tea is perhaps the most healthy, flavored beverage. Ditch the soda, even the sugar-free versions. Enjoy alcohol in moderation, less than 2 drinks per day, with red wine as the ideal libation.
Have a few servings of fruit with breakfast, and have a large salad with lunch or dinner, including lots of greens with brightly colored red, yellow, orange or purple veggies. Add a healthy protein source with meals. Enjoy sparkling water or tea with lunch and wine with dinner. In general I recommend a more whole food plant based diet, such as a Mediterranean diet.
Enjoy the holiday feasts and festivities but let a little discretion and common sense reign. Eat, drink, and be merry – that is, eat healthy, drink moderately, and be merry about your wise food choices. Follow these guidelines tightly throughout the holidays and you may find the New Year doesn’t have to bring in new weight!
Scott Rollins, MD, is Board Certified with the American Board of Family Practice and the American Board of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine. He specializes in bioidentical hormone replacement for men and women, thyroid and adrenal disorders, fibromyalgia and other complex medical conditions. He is founder and medical director of the Integrative Medicine Center of Western Colorado (www.imcwc.com) and Bellezza Laser Aesthetics (www.bellezzalaser.com). Call (970) 245-6911 for an appointment or more information.